Plucky underdogs, Arsenal, gave themselves every chance of pulling off a shock in the League Cup when they claimed an heroic 0-0 draw at the home of the Premier League champions on Wednesday evening.
Jack Wilshere, handed the armband for the first time to celebrate his last Arsenal appearance until 2021, led his charges in a battle that saw Arsene Wenger, once again, hail his side’s ‘spirit’ and ‘strength’.
Wenger’s genius tactics of relying on Alvaro Moratta to be s**t paid off handsomely as Arsenal forced Thibaut Courtois into an exhausting three saves over the course of the evening. The best of the bunch was undoubtedly when he picked the ball up off the floor as it trickled towards him following Alex Iwobi’s fierce effort from outside the box.
“We are used to scoring of course, so we are a bit frustrated we didn’t score, but overall I think the team performance was very positive and very good,” Wenger said after the game about his side, that has averaged one goal per game in this competition against stiff opposition that has included the likes of Doncaster Rovers and Norwich City.
After the whistle, Arsenal fans hailed their side’s scoreless draw as something of a miracle despite being disgusted at being made to care about the League Cup in the first place.
A competition with no value to anyone except Spurs fans and Jose Mourinho, the League Cup has long been a testing ground for Arsenal’s youngsters to determine which ones will be sold to League Two sides and which ones will remain in the youth system until they are 29, to be released for free after amassing zero minutes for the first team.
This season, however, with Arsenal’s FA Cup run over before Alex Iwobi’s system had cleared itself, and Arsenal’s allergy to the Swiss silver used to forge European trophies well documented, the League Cup has taken on added significance.
Chelsea were, in some ways, the perfect opposition for Arsenal.
Players do not need to be motivated by the manager when they play at Stamford Bridge. Which is just as well, given Arsene Wenger’s apparent aversion to anything pre-match that might raise the player’s adrenaline levels even slightly.
Ahead of the match, Wenger is also believed to have lodged a protest with the FA over the two-legged nature of the semi-final Carabao Cup ties, believing it hands an unfair advantage to Chelsea. The Gunners have not won a two-legged tie in living memory, which many point to as more evidence of the clear conspiracy against the club at all levels.
When the line-ups were announced, pundits discussed the manager’s ‘brave’ decision to opt for a team of fringe stars and youngsters against Antonio Conte, a man who has only managed to beat Arsenal once in seven games.
Little did they know that this was, bar Petr Cech, Arsenal’s strongest possible starting team given the host of injuries at the club and the fact that Alexis Sanchez exists only as an expression of fans’ broken dreams.
Given those problems, the only real surprise was the benching of Alexis Sanchez. Wenger clearly felt Alexis and Manchester City would benefit from the Chilean taking a little breather, an approach he maintained when he replaced Alexandre Lacazette after 65 minutes.
Reports that the Chilean had contacted Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to discuss how one should perform in their last game for Arsenal when it is against a top six side havenot been confirmed, at the time of writing.
Record signing Lacazette was again under-par, this time afflicted by illness which had put his participation in doubt.
The £52m striker seems shorn of confidence after being repeatedly subbed when his side are in desperate need for a goal. It’s a mystery that is unlikely to be solved.
Against the odds, Arsenal are still in with a chance of collecting their fourth trophy in five years.
Should they negotiate the second leg, however, they know that either Manchester or Bristol City await. Terrifying prospects, both…